Singing the Blues

THEY ARE CANNIBALISTIC. Their jaws have sharp teeth. Their eyes are the color of a Louisiana Catahoula leopard dog, yellow and as menacing and off-putting as an amber-eyed fish can be. Their insides are the color of old gray porch paint and dried blood.

You will not find them featured on any local restaurant’s menu, no matter how local or “dock to dish” they claim to be. If they are even sold at the local fishmonger’s shop, they are the cheapest item in the store. Their flesh spoils quickly.

What are we talking about? Just one of the most delicious, underrated, and overlooked fish in our waters. It was once an all-time favorite meal of Long Islanders, from old East Hampton families to Walt Whitman (who loved them, he said, even more than porgies): Pomatomus saltatrix, the only extant species of the family Pomatomidae. In other words, the bluefish.

Having grown up in Virginia, I spent a good bit of time fishing the Chesapeake Bay. The blues, “snappers” when they are young, are prized as feisty fighters, and we all thought they were delicious . . . when fresh. Youth and freshness are the key with bluefish.

You have to go back into ancient editions of the Ladies Village Improvement Society cookbooks — or peruse a church cook booklet from Springs or Amagansett — to find recipes for bluefish; more contemporary cookbooks give them short shrift. You can still buy an excellent smoked blue at the Seafood Shop in Wainscott (when available), which is just the thing with a horseradish-y dip.

One recipe I found in the L.V.I.S. Centennial Cookbook committed the cardinal sin of combining fish with cheese — Roquefort, no less! Well, I suppose that’s one way to smother the fishy taste, if you’re not a real fish-lover: Roquefort, Parmesan, garlic, shallots, and then lemon. Some other old-fashioned recipes of yore call for
a layer of mayonnaise before broiling, perhaps enhanced with Dijon mustard or old Bay seasoning or lemon.

The fish display at the Citarella’s in East Hampton describes bluefish as “a full-flavored, silvery dark meat high in oily-rich omega-3. Adventurous palates will love their bold ocean flavor, with lemon or a delicate gray sea salt.” Price: $7.99 per pound.

Honey, it’ll take more than that lackluster description to sell bluefish.

A few years ago my friend
 Tom Schaudel, one of the most talented, funny, peripatetic 
chefs on Long Island, was
trying to sell bluefish on his
 menu. It just didn’t budge. Then
 he changed the name to “cobalt snapper.” Isn’t that alluring and romantic and delicious-sounding? That bluefish entrée sold like crazy after that.

At Lazy Point recently I came across a fellow fishing at sunset. I told him I was doing a story on bluefish. He suggested I get out my rod and get to it, they were biting. I confessed that I am better at procuring bird’s nests, if you know what I mean. Predictably, he replied that he doesn’t like them, he doesn’t eat them, he throws 
them back, and if he caught one, it
 was mine.

Within 10 minutes he presented me with a good-sized (perhaps three pounds) snapper. I gingerly took the squirmer and cleaned it immediately. This is key. With a quick dusting of Hog’s Breath seasoning from Key West and some lime wedges, I had a free and delicious omega-3 feast.

We need to bring back some respect for this Rodney Dangerfield of the Atlantic. At the very least it could become a “thing” to smoke it and turn it into a dip.

I like to douse a nicely grilled piece in a super savory barbecue sauce recipe from the Chesapeake Bay Office of Seafood Marketing, Department of Economic and Community Development. (Gosh, I miss living near the epicenter of our country’s government. That is one sexy title!)

If I haven’t convinced you, and you’re still feeling wary, take it from old Walt: “The blue fish, however, are the most delicious, to my taste,” he wrote. “Cooked while perfectly fresh, and not salted till fried, or broiled, they are fit for the most refined epicure.”

Laura Donnelly